Something was different as we walked into Dr. Collier’s Social Studies Content class during that first ACE summer.
He had us sit specifically in columns of five and said that we would be learning about Henry Ford’s assembly line. In our columns, we each would draw a different component of a Model T: one person would draw the chassis, another the tires and so on until it was complete. Our race to produce more than the other assembly lines kept us drawing as quickly as possible, but the real genius of the activity was the ridiculous jingle we sang after each car was finished: “Working at Ford’s is really tough but it’s the only job in townnnn!” The entire column had to sing it together before we could start on our next car. As a 24-year-old grad student, I thought I was above singing songs in my college classes, and I was sure none of the high school juniors I was about to teach would ever go along with something that felt so elementary. I was, of course, completely wrong.
Before even getting a chance to use Dr. Collier’s lesson in my classroom that first school year, I was already hearing about it from Saint Joseph Academy students. In talking to seniors about their memories of US History 11 (taught the prior year by ACE Teaching Fellow Gabriel Orlett), they almost immediately all broke out into “Working at Ford’s is really tough, but it’s the only job in townnnn!” This silly jingle immediately sprung to mind when they thought back to their history class the year before. The simulation had brought to life the concept of the assembly line and the catchy jingle introduced the students to the “Boom & Bust” unit that explored the impact of the emerging consumer culture of the 1920s. With their own experience in the assembly line, students then explored how the ability to mass-produce goods changed the culture of America into the society we know today. I’ve since taught that lesson twice and passed on the jingle to two more generations of St. Joe’s students. Even now, all it takes is a little prompting with “Working at Ford’s…” for students to tell me how much they remember about the impact of the assembly line on our culture.
This year, I decided to push the concept further and teach a lesson almost entirely as a sing-along. While studying World War I propaganda, we examined posters and analyzed them for the different types of propaganda techniques as they appealed to their viewer’s patriotism and dehumanized the opposing side to promote a feeling of nationalism. We then sang “Over There,” a patriotic song written by George M. Cohan, and the entire class belted out the words that encouraged young American boys to leave the comfort of their homes and fight in Europe. Teenaged students who refused to sing during Mass heard me belting out a 100-year-old tune and decided it wouldn’t kill them to join in. After we sang “Over There,” we analyzed the lyrics as we had the propaganda posters and found many of the same emotional appeal techniques that we had seen in the posters. Singing “Over There” gave my students a chance to experience the effects of the song as soldiers gearing up for war would have. Analyzing the song showed students how our emotions can often be manipulated by propaganda, encouraging us to take actions we would have never thought possible before. Since this lesson, I am often spontaneously serenaded by my students in the halls, and I know that day in my class is one they will carry with them long past graduation.
This type of singing lesson was not something that I ever thought I would feel comfortable doing. But by letting my guard down and focusing on the ways that I could best engage my students, I found that we were able to embark on an authentic and challenging learning journey together. In a subject that is too often chock-full of trivia, I think this lesson is one worth remembering.